Quilting is rebellion
Veronica spent the day getting to know her fabric.
She played with the fabric and experimented with colors.
Satisfied with her work, Veronica went downstairs to make dinner.
“Did you get anything done up there?” her husband asked.
Veronica did not like that. She wanted to revel in the process without having to provide a proof of her leisure time.
In a moment of anger, Veronica realized something.
The next morning, she hurried to her friend’s house. Every week, Veronica and five other women from the local quilting guild met to make quilts. Guild activities could get business-like, but quilting bees had a relaxed atmosphere. Each meeting started with a cup of coffee and went on until early afternoon.
Veronica arrived at the quilt bee wearing a big grin.
“I finally get it,” she announced. “I’m a quilter!”
In quilting, layers of cloth and batting are stitched to create a unique textile product. Each quilt tells a story.
It can be a story of new beginnings. A quilt makes an excellent wedding gift or baby blanket.
It can be a story of endurance. A quilt commemorates the hardship and the heritage of marginalized groups. Their voices are preserved in patches and strips of fabric – a silent tale told in needle and thread.
In the United States, quilting has never gone out of style. People of all races, classes, and faiths quilt till this day. Contemporary quilting is no longer about necessity and survival, but it is still about something more than pretty patterns.
Who still quilts, and why?
Marybeth C. Stalp spent two years interviewing amateur quilters like Veronica. She talked to 70 women, mainly from the Midwest and the South. Most were married (to men), with children, and worked for a salary until retirement. Almost all were white.
For many of them, quilting was a support system and creative outlet. They joined guilds and bees for friendship and inspiration.
Others enjoyed the final product in its material, finite being. As Emma, a mother of three, explained: “Before you have the dishwasher empty, there are more dirty dishes, same thing with the clothes. The house is always a mess, the grass always needs cutting. You never see that you’re getting anywhere (…), whereas if you make a quilt at the end you have something tangible.”
A quilt is a one-time deal. You do it until it is done, and it stays done. Its tangibility offers a refreshing alternative to household chores.
Through quilting, Veronica and Emma escaped their Sisyphean roles of housekeepers and caregivers. The escape was temporary but thrilling. To step outside the vicious circle of chores, they had to carve out personal time. They had to assert their right to self-actualization.
For women in traditional family settings, this is a radical step. Contesting gender stereotypes is not easy. That is why women often wait until the circumstances are right.
They wait till midlife.
Stalp’s respondents ranged in age from 20 to 90+, but their average age was 55. They started quilting when their children moved out or when retirement was already on the horizon. After years of sacrificing personal interests for paid work and unpaid care work, they claimed their free time.
“I’ve gotten to the age where I don’t want to waste anything I do,” said Meg, a former painter. “And I don’t want to take the time just to do something that isn’t going to be of use or within the line that I’m focusing on. I quilt to create beauty, to create something of myself.”
For women like Meg, quilting becomes a subjective career. This career is not measured by external markers of success. Rather, it is linked to a person’s identity and self-worth.
“If I don’t do this to please myself, who in the world am I doing it for?” Meg pointed out. “And you’re not in competition with anybody but yourself, and a lot of people lose track of that.”
With money and recognition out of the picture, amateur quilters focus on themselves. They make new bonds and cultivate old ones. They practice care and self-care. They learn to trust the process.
They begin to unwind.
“One of the things I learned throughout the years that I was sewing and quilting, it’s wonderful to not to have to be perfect,” said Eileen. “So what if the little corner isn’t exactly right? So what? It’s okay. And life has been a lot easier since I discovered that.”
A quilt is tangible, but creative freedom is ephemeral. It comes and goes. Quilting experiences of midlife women both reify and challenge traditional femininity.
But every time Veronica, Emma, Meg, and Eileen quilt, they rebel. Even if it is just for a while. Even if they never take it up a notch.
They rebel against a world in which women devote all their energy to others. They show that a woman’s self-expression and leisure time are as important as a man’s. They define and reinvent themselves independently of family and profession.
When midlife women quilt, they learn what they are made of.
They get to know their fabric.
This was written by Adrianna Zabrzewska and is based on a 2006 article by Marybeth C. Stalp, “Creating an Artistic Self: Amateur Quilters and Subjective Careers” published in Sociological Focus 39:3, pp. 193–216, DOI: 10.1080/00380237.2006.10571285
Quotes from Emma and Eileen appear on pages 208 and 210 respectively. First quote from Meg (“I’ve gotten to the age”) is on page 205 and the second quote (“If I don’t do this”) – on page 211. Veronica’s story is on pages 206–207.
Copyright Adrianna Zabzrewska 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND